On Prayer

Those who are Christians are called to follow Jesus; to be like Jesus; to be Jesus in the world. To live in the world but not of the world. To spread the Good News; to evangelize. That's quite a challenge. And it can be very difficult, even life threatening. While Jesus promises , "For my yoke is easy, and my burden light" (Mt. 11:30) he also asks, "Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?" (Mt. 20:22)

Not all are called to sacrifice their lives for Christ. Yet, all must recognize that possibility. Before I could follow someone who makes such a great demand of me I would need to love him. And before I could love him I would need to know him as well as I could. To paraphrase Godspell, I would want to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly, day by day.

So, how are we able to know Jesus? In my essay On Faith I quoted Fr. John Hardon's definition of the virtue of faith as "essentially the power to know God as he has revealed himself". It is with the virtue of faith that we are able to know Christ.

All Christians receive this virtue in Baptism. (Note: I intend this to include those who are baptized using the Trinitarian baptismal formula) Yet, not all share the same beliefs. As an example, some say the consecrated bread and wine are the real body and blood of Christ. Others claim this is not so. Both can't be right. Obviously some have been taught and believe error. How can this happen?

There are at least three ways that this can occur. The doctrines or beliefs of the church in which one is raised and educated can be in error. The person instructing or educating the baptized person could be teaching error, either intentionally or unintentionally. Or the baptized person may be unable to accept a truth that has been taught. Or it may be a combination of all three. There is only one who cannot teach in error and that is Truth himself. God, through his Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, can't lie. He can't deceive. He can't mislead. It is with the help of the Holy Spirit that we are able to discern the truth. So what is the one thing all baptized, and unbaptized for that matter, can do to open themselves to the Spirit and thereby discern what is true and what is not?


"Let's get very, very basic and very, very practical about prayer. The single most important piece of advice I know about prayer is also the simplest: Just do it!" (Peter Kreeft, The Angel and the Ants)

"Learning to pray is 'learning to waste time gracefully'". (Thomas H. Green, S.J., Opening to God)

It may be tempting to suggest here that non-Catholics pray for the grace to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. But that isn't the purpose of this essay. For that matter, there are many Catholics who also could pray for the grace to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. Rather, I would suggest you pray for the grace to know Jesus. For then "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (Jn. 8:32)

For most Catholics the most common form of prayer is probably recitation of memorized prayer or reading prayers from a prayer book. Some also are able to pray with spontaneous prayer. While these forms of prayer are good they both share a common drawback. They are verbal in nature, even when prayed silently, and as we all know it is difficult to talk and listen at the same time. In these forms of prayer we are talking to God, but, we aren't always listening to God. It tends to be a one sided conversation.

An alternative form of prayer is praying with scripture. This manner of prayer is at the center of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius using both meditation and contemplation (contemplation as used in this sense means praying with fantasy or imagination). The description that follows may be different from how some are used to praying with scripture.

Using meditation in prayer begins with a reading from scripture, such as John 6:35 - Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst". Using your intellect, your understanding, meditate on what those words mean. What is Christ saying? How can what he says be true? Spend some time with the passage letting it sink in as your reason tries to understand what is being said.

Using contemplation in prayer, that is, praying with fantasy or imagination, also starts with a scripture reading such as this:

John 6:35-69

After reading the scripture imagine yourself being present as Jesus is speaking to the Jewish people. Imagine what would be going through your mind as you heard these words. You know Jesus' mother, Mary, and his father, Joseph. You are wondering what the Jews were wondering. Do you get up and walk out? Do you cease to follow Jesus because what he says is difficult to hear?

Or imagine yourself with the Twelve. How do they react to what Jesus has just said? Are they tempted to return to their former way of life?

Or imagine yourself talking to Jesus. Maybe you ask him how he feels as he experiences the disbelief, even anger, that is being expressed by those who have been following him and have seen him work his miracles yet leave him because what he said shocked them?

Praying with scripture in this way can be a powerful tool to get to know Jesus.

Some who pray may find themselves in what St. Teresa of Avila called the Prayer of Quiet. Fr. Green describes this as "a new found joy simply in being still in the presence of the Lord, just as good friends find joy simply in being together. They are not self-conscious or nervous about silences. They don't plan their conversation or analyze their relationship. They don't really 'think about' each other much when they are together. They just are, and they are happy to be together, whatever may be happening." (Thomas H. Green, S.J., When the Well Runs Dry) It is in this time of prayer that the understanding and imagination can become distractions. Peter Kreeft describes his own experience with prayer:

 I can only speak from my own experience as a continuing beginner. The two most effective methods I have found are very simple. One is praying Scripture, reading and praying at the same time, reading in God's presence, receiving the words from God's mouth. The second is spontaneous verbal prayer. I am not good at all at silent prayer, mental prayer, contemplative prayer; my thoughts hop around like fleas. Praying aloud (or singing) keeps me praying, at least. And I find it often naturally leads to silent prayer, or "mental prayer," or contemplation. (The Angel and the Ants)

The thoughts hopping around like fleas are our understanding and imagination clamoring for attention. Fr. Green has a suggestion for dealing with them.

 Imagine that you and I are having a serious conversation, perhaps about prayer. And imagine that your small nieces and nephews are present as we talk. Since our conversation about prayer would mean very little to them, they would become restless and begin clamoring for attention. They might start calling your name, pulling at you, demanding attention for themselves. If they were unable to get your attention they would eventually wander off by themselves and, depending on their upbringing and their energy, either proceed to demolish the house or settle down in some corner to play a game by themselves. The point is this: in the prayer of quiet, where God works directly on the will, the understanding and the imagination are like the nieces and nephews. They seem to be left out of the work of loving which engages the adults (God and the will), and so, like the children, they clamor for attention. This is what we mean by involuntary distractions, which we don't seek or deliberately entertain but which seem to "just come" and sometimes to be very persistent. What should we do about them?

Surprisingly, the best answer is: Just ignore them! Like the children who cannot understand, and are not involved in the adult conversation, our faculties seek something meaningful for themselves. If we are continually trying to control them, to keep them quiet, if the will is continually struggling to subdue the understanding and the imagination, then all its energy will be consumed by this struggle and the will's loving contact with God will be lost. Usually it is best to ignore the wandering imagination and thoughts, unless they become so noisy that the adult conversation is really interrupted, in which case a good spanking or a reprimand is in order. If we ignore them they will gradually settle down. Meanwhile, the adults—the will and God—will be able to share deeply in the encounter of love. (Green, When the Well Runs Dry)

How important is prayer? Peter Kreeft says it is "a matter of life or death, your lifeline to God, to life itself."

Is this exaggerated? Are there more important things? Love, for instance? We need love absolutely. But the love we need is agape, the love that only God has and is; so unless we go to God for it, we won't get it. And going to God for it means prayer. So unless we pray, we will not love. (The Angel and the Ants)

Remember the order we follow: to know Christ so that we can love Christ; so that we can follow Christ. That is, to live and love like Christ.

How do we find time to pray? Again, Kreeft says:

 The major obstacle in most of our lives to just saying yes to prayer, the most popular and powerful excuse we give for not praying, or not praying more, or not praying regularly, is that we have no time.

The only effective answer to that excuse, I find, is a kind of murder. You have to kill something, you have to say no to something else, in order to make time to pray. Of course, you will never find time to pray, you have to make time to pray. And that means unmaking something else. The only way to install the tenant of prayer in the apartment building of your life is to evict some other tenant from those premises that prayer will occupy. Few of us have any empty rooms available. (The Angel and the Ants)

How much time should we spend in prayer? Kreeft:

 How long a time? That varies with individuals and situations, of course; but the very barest minimum should certainly be at least fifteen minutes. You can't really count on getting much deep stuff going on in less time than that. If fifteen minutes seems too much to you, that fact is powerful proof that you need to pray much more to get your head on straight.

After it becomes more habitual and easy, expand it, double it. And later, double it again. Aim at an hour each day, if you want radical results. (Do you? Or are you only playing?) (The Angel and the Ants)

Learning to pray this way is not easy. It takes time and effort. The easiest way to begin praying with scripture is to use the daily Mass readings. You say you don't know what they are? Click here for a link to the daily readings.

philneri, 5/7/2000

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